Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Restaurant review: Little Tommie’s Tiki is laid-back and lovely

Little Tommie’s Tiki pairs Gulfport’s casual vibe with serious eats.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 6, 2014 at 3:39 PM

click to enlarge PIGGING OUT: Try the pulled pork sandwich with sweet potato fries. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • PIGGING OUT: Try the pulled pork sandwich with sweet potato fries.

As this special neighborhood issue attests, Gulfport has a unique personality all its own. The same is true of Little Tommie’s Tiki. It’s casual (like Gulfport), but the food and staff are as welcoming and fresh as the cool breeze that whips across Shore Boulevard from the adjacent Boca Ciega Bay.

Our server is genuine and warm, like an old friend. We feel welcome like family and settle comfortably into the relaxed vibe. My tablemates zero in on the red sangria, which arrives in a Patrón Silver tequila bottle (nice touch) filled to the brim. We uncork that sucker and fill our wine glasses, which are overflowing with ice and neat lemon, lime and orange slices. The sangria is luscious and not too sweet. I’m already a believer.

I can’t convince my companions to try the fried pickles with creamy peppercorn sauce, and hummus or chips with salsa don’t really challenge the kitchen. We settle on the house-smoked salmon spread. It’s very smoky but not overpowering. The colorful plate is piled high with the chunky fish just barely bound together; it’s surrounded on the dish by shallow sections filled with baby carrots, celery stalks, black olive slices, jalapeño and cherry pepper pieces and some wheat crackers. The fish is the star, but it’s nice to have mix-and-match options to vary the texture and heat of each mouthful.

We also hit the jackpot with sweet dates stuffed with tangy goat cheese, then wrapped in crisp prosciutto and topped with a thick balsamic drizzle. These tasty morsels sit on a bed of fresh greens that can be used to wrap the fruit or just eaten after these jewels disappear to fulfill your daily roughage quotient.

click to enlarge The restaurant's house-smoked salmon spread. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • The restaurant's house-smoked salmon spread.

There are many beach stalwarts on the menu, but rarely are they this well done. Most fish tacos or pulled pork sandwiches are acceptable, but usually don’t make you sit up and take notice. We settle on blackened fish as the taco protein of choice over ground beef, pork, chicken and steak, and are not disappointed. The fish is moist and just perfectly spicy. Add a balance of crisp cabbage, some pico de gallo, shredded cheddar and jack cheeses all wrapped up in soft flour tortillas, and life is good.

It’s no secret to regular readers that I have a pork fetish, but I switched my allegiance from pulled pork to ribs when surveying the Bay’s barbecue offerings. The area's array of ribs made me swoon, leaving the shredded sandwich in the proverbial dust. Tiki’s pulled pork sandwich reminds me of the glory days: A kaiser roll piled with moist, smoky meat, topped by a huge mound of apple-fennel slaw — the South Carolina mustard sauce is served on the side.

Even though I’ve always preferred eastern Carolina vinegar and pepper sauce, I dip my finger in Tiki’s cup to check out the flavor profile. It’s delicious and just slightly sweet. Momentarily lacking any sense of moderation, I empty the entire contents onto the hot pork, grab the sandwich and take a huge bite. As the sauce mingles with the dressing from the slaw, it drips down my chin, through my fingers and starts its forearm journey toward my elbow before I snap out of my pulled-pork stupor. If more of the Bay’s barbecue restaurants had sandwiches this good, I might be persuaded to reconsider my rib conversion. The sweet potato fries win out over regular spuds or beans and rice as our chosen side; it turns out to be a good choice.

click to enlarge Little Tommie's Tiki is casual with a welcoming staff. - CHIP WEINER
  • Chip Weiner
  • Little Tommie's Tiki is casual with a welcoming staff.

The ahi entree encrusts 8 ounces of tuna with what seems like an infinite number of white and black sesame seeds (they are everywhere). It’s lightly seared, and paired with sun-dried tomatoes, capers, artichokes, goat cheese and spinach to excellent effect. We have just enough room left to have something sweet.

Usually when a restaurant opts to bring in outside desserts, they get a generic product. However, the Tiki folks have wisely jobbed in the amazing rum cakes from Lynne James, whose White Apron Bundt Cakes are simply scrumptious. Plus, the buzz is that she’s on the verge of a deal to hawk her wares to home shoppers on cable. Our yellow cake is moist with butter and bursting with rum flavor. The tender chunk of cake is served with housemade creme fraiche, vanilla ice cream and huge, fresh strawberry fans drizzled with chocolate sauce. They also offer a chocolate version, which is bound to be good.

The key lime pie with a Lorna Doone crust is very creamy, but not so much about lime; it’s more like a delicious condensed milk pie. I miss the tartness, but the pie is made with obvious care. And that’s certainly the case with our entire meal and the friendly service — Little Tommie's Tiki has replaced the popular Village Pub without missing a step. This cozy spot has a beautiful deck overlooking the the beach and the blue waters of the bay. I’m already planning a return visit. I need another dose of the pulled pork, and I do believe there’s a piece of chocolate rum cake just waiting for me. 

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